In the recently released Stones Throw Records documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton there’s a scene where Otis “Madlib” Jackson Jr. explains that he became disillusioned with hip-hop production and bored of making beats. Rather than stop working altogether he applied his skills to a new art form and with no formal musical training started making critically acclaimed jazz under the name Yesterdays New Quintet.
Hip-hop at large has no shortage of limitations but those are especially clear in the world of turntablism. Sure techniques can be refined for a lifetime but artists eventually hit a ceiling where they need something more.
While some have had identity crises in the wake of classic albums (*cough* DJ Shadow *cough*) others have utilized their skills for something much greater. World champion DJ A-Trak for example has been a major force in the rise of EDM while running the successfully diverse Fool’s Gold imprint and staying true to hip-hop (thank him for the current Dipset resurrection).
Arguably the most ambitious and least likely to be constrained however is Montreal-based disc jockey Eric San. As Kid Koala he’s been an endless source of creativity and his work continues to evolve in fascinating and ambitious ways.
To be clear Kid Koala is still an immensely talented DJ — his work on last year’s Deltron 3030 album Event 2 and his 2012 solo album 12 Bit Blues demonstrate his prowess in the traditional (for Kid Koala at least) realm of turntablism — but his work has always hinted that there’s a multidisciplinary artist somewhere under the surface.
Following hand-drawn comic book art in his albums Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000) and Some of My Best Friends are DJs (2003) San released a stand-alone graphic novel called Nufonia Must Fall in 2003. The book a story about a down-on-his-luck robot who falls in love with a flesh-and-blood woman while trying to navigate the doldrums of everyday work life was an ambitious work complete with a listen-along CD score. Proving that San can’t stop expanding his magical world however he’s now turned it into a multi-disciplinary puppet show.
Nufonia Must Fall Live offered a preview at the Banff Centre’s Eric Harvie Theatre on Saturday May 31 before its world premiere at Toronto’s Luminato Festival next week. The piece was directed by K.K. Barrett a production designer whose impressive resume includes music videos from the Smashing Pumpkins and Beck as well as work on films like Adaptation Being John Malkovich Lost in Translation Where the Wild Things Are and Her among many others.
A perfect fit with both Kid Koala and K.K.’s repertoire Nufonia Must Fall Live was at once unabashedly twee and profoundly ambitious. On stage right Kid Koala was set up with turntables synthesizers electric piano and a ukelele now juggling elements of a film score rather than mere hip-hop beats. With his right hand he’d be hopping around on a record while his left played sombre piano melodies. Those sounds were expanded by the romantic traditional strings of the Afiara Quartet.
The rest of the stage was populated by four stations with miniature sets and puppets along with a large number of black-clad puppeteers frantically running around and bringing the work to life. Those sets were filmed in real time and displayed onscreen.
Barrett warned that there could be some hiccups at this preview screening but the nature of the show made it unclear what was a problem and what was intentional. Were those shots meant to be unfocused? Was Kid Koala’s synthesizer meant to be so distorted so that it sounded like it wasn’t working?
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Nufonia Must Fall Live was completely engrossing; a piece that was enhanced by its loose hand-made feeling. Whether the audience opted to get lost in the music marvel at the live puppetry or simply follow the charming heartfelt silent film unfolding onscreen the stage inspired awe.
Chalk it up to the limitless creative energy that one can obtain from an insular DIY subculture. San grew up as a hip-hop turntablist while Barrett was a punk drummer in the cult-classic band The Screamers. (For what it’s worth Barrett’s frequent collaborator Spike Jonze came to filmmaking through skateboarding.) These were movements that bubbled below the mainstream and offered a training ground for future auteurs. Nufonia Must Fall Live was a major triumph for these artists but also proof that they’ll be evolving art forms and blowing minds for years to come.